- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

It was this week, 53 years ago, that a group of nations came together in Washington to found a defensive alliance against a common enemy, the Soviet Union. By establishing that an attack against one was an attack against all, they created a military alliance of unprecedented durability, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It has been a huge success story.

For the nations of the former East Bloc, membership in NATO and the European Union has been seen as the final passport to a new beginning. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are now NATO members. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, times have changed and so has NATO. For those still left out of NATO, imagine coming so close to achieving membership that you can almost taste it and finding that your club of choice has changed. Since September 11, new tensions have developed within the defense alliance, some political in nature, some due to the huge technological capabilities gap between Europe and the United States. NATO isn't even clear about its mission any more, so what is the point of jockeying for position for membership at the upcoming NATO summit this fall in Prague?

Interestingly, if such existential doubts have beset political leaders in the aspirant countries, signs are hard to find. In fact, the more pronounced the rifts become between the United States and some countries of Western Europe, the more eager their neighbors to the East have been to show themselves friends of the United States. At a time of crisis, friendly nations are surely appreciated by the White House, be they great or small. Foreign leaders who have conveyed their countries' support to President George Bush speak of the extraordinary warmth with which it has been received.

Some of these same arguments were made eloquently at a recent meeting of the Atlantic Council in Washington by former Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov, currently a resident scholar at the German Marshall Fund. Rather than slow the momentum of NATO expansion, he said, it appears that September 11 has brought greater urgency to enlargement. Before September 11, a "big bang" enlargement was certainly not perceived as realistic big bang meaning the admission of a large group of new members. Just a year ago, enlargement discussions centered around one or two countries, usually Slovenia and Lithuania. Any notion that five, seven or nine nations could be included at once appeared too extreme.

As in so many other ways, however, the events of September 11 have changed the NATO debate profoundly. Today, the prevailing wisdom holds that an enlargement of seven nations is possible: the three Baltic countries, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. The final two are the most controversial as their militaries are the least advanced, but the Bush administration appears to have set its heart on expansion along the southern flank of the alliance as well.

"People have come to see how it is important to have Eastern Europeans as allies," Mr. Stoyanov said. The war on terrorism has changed the security equation in Europe, he pointed out. Romania and Bulgaria have strategic location as their primary asset in the war on terrorism. American troops may be stationed there for forward deployment. The two countries provide access to the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus region. And they have helped build a bulwark in Europe against the exploding crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s. "Romania and Bulgaria have already acted as de facto NATO allies," he says.

Perhaps it may reasonably be asked, in that case, why extend actual NATO membership, with all its treaty obligations, to nations that are already "de facto" allies? Well, because loyalty goes both ways. The kind of unwavering, absolute support the United States enjoys in Central and Eastern Europe ought not be taken for granted.

It should be noted, however, that despite the frustrations felt by Americans over their European allies, and despite the easily caricatured animosities over Middle East policies, some Western European governments have been unwavering in their support for the United States, as well. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been a staunch U.S. ally every step of the way, to the point of risking his political standing within Britain's Labour Party. He flew home from this weekend's Crawford summit with Mr. Bush to face a firestorm of criticism.

Similar loyalty was recently conveyed by Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on his first official visit to the United States. "For Denmark it is essential to have transatlantic ties," Mr. Rasmussen said after his meeting with Mr. Bush. "The relationship between the United States and Denmark has never been better. There is not a single issue that stands between us." Denmark has proven its support by dispatching troops for the special forces operations in Afghanistan and minesweepers as well and has taken casualties.

Even a country as powerful as the United States needs friends. Fortunately, the Bush administration seems to be aware that by looking at the right places in Europe, it will still be able to find them.

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